Athletes and the gut microbiota: Can we mine for new probiotics?

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Gut microbiota Bacteria Gut flora

The gut microbiomes of athletes are more diverse than non-athletes, and scientists at Harvard are predicting that new probiotics derived from athletic microbiomes could be hitting the market within two years.

Scientists from University College Cork in Ireland reported in 2014 that the gut microbiomes of professional Irish rugby players were significantly more diverse than non-athletes.

Writing in the journal Gut​, the scientists noted that, “the enhanced diversity of the microbiota correlates with exercise and dietary protein consumption in the athlete group”.

When looking at the specific genus and species, the researchers found that the rugby players had higher proportions of Akkermansia​, compared to non-athletes with high BMI. Akkermansia​ has been linked to improved metabolic profiles and is reported to have anti-obesity effects.

A follow-on study performed in collaboration with scientists at Imperial College London in England (and also published earlier this year in Gut​) found the differences between athletes and sedentary people is “even more evident at the functional or metabolic level”​.

In an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, ​the Cork-based scientists noted that data from a rodent study has suggested a potential action of the gut microbiota on antioxidant enzyme systems (Hsu et al. 2015, J Strength Cond Res​).

“While research on the potential of [gut microbiota] in sports medicine is in its infancy, there is definite potential to positively impact athlete health, injury and ultimately performance, as greater understanding of the complex microbe-human relationship is developed,” ​they wrote in the editorial.

Microbiome mining

Despite being in its infancy, the research is advancing rapidly and scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard​ are using high-throughput next generation sequencing technology to track changes in the microbiome of athletes before, during and after exercise, as well as during recovery.

According to an article published on the institute’s website,“[s]uch comparable longitudinal analysis is revealing transient changes in the abundance of specific bacterial species or even of genetic variants of individual species that correlate with and possibly help drive peak performances in a wide range of sports where extraordinary endurance, speed or strength are involved”​.

Wyss scientists have been recruiting large numbers of elite athletes to try to identify consistent changes that relate to endurance, speed, and strength.

“A tremendous opportunity”

Probiotics © iStock frentusha
Image © iStock/frentusha

“Probiotics as an industry is around a $60 billion industry a year. 90% of it is derived from two types of bacteria,” ​explained Dr Jonathan Scheiman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute, in the Disruptive: Sports Genomics​ podcast.“We have trillions of bugs in our gut basically waiting to be discovered to disrupt that industry that have all sorts of cool functional applications and beneficial applications in our body.

“Sports nutrition is a $115 billion industry. Gatorade makes $3 billion a year,”​ he adds. “[L]ess than 1% of that industry is made up of probiotics. There's a tremendous opportunity.

“That is something that could happen fairly rapidly,” ​says Scheiman. “Actually, for our first set of probiotic candidates, we would imagine being able to commercialize them in this form within 18-24 months. Again, the great thing about the probiotic industry is that the manufacturing and delivery capabilities and large-scale fermentation, a lot of that stuff has been established.”

To listen to the full podcast, please click HERE​.

Sources: Gut
2014, Volume 63, Number 12, Pages 1913-20, doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2013-306541
“Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity”
Authors: S.F. Clarke et al.

2017, Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313627
“The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level”
Authors: W. Barton et al.

British Journal of Sports Medicine
2017, Volume 51, Pages 698-699, doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-097227
‘Microbes in sport’ – The potential role of the gut microbiota in athlete health and performance
Authors: A. Rankin et al. 

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